Address to the Disability Advocacy Network Australia (DANA) Conference
“The view from the Opposition”
Rex Hotel, Canberra
1 May 2012
E & OE
Thanks very much Craig. I might also acknowledge Andrea, the CEO, good to see you. Thank you for the careful instruction that you gave us before we got here. I also acknowledge my parliamentary colleague Rachel Siewert.
Good morning. It’s great to be here in what is a pretty historic hotel. The Rex is famous for having hosted President Lyndon Baines Johnson. I think he’s probably the last US President who ever visited here, but it’s a place steeped in history.
How strange it was last night watching the TV news to actually see disability get some serious coverage. It was strange but it was good. Obviously the coverage last night was as a result of the great rallies around Australia, the ‘Let’s Make It Real’ rallies. I had the great privilege of addressing the rally in Melbourne, and what a sight it was, to see thousands of people there in common purpose. And the common purpose was to make a statement that Australians with disability and their families have had to wait far too long for proper support. I also think that the other real import of yesterday was essentially the entering into of a new covenant for people with disability. That there would be agreement from all sides of politics that people with disability need a new deal. A deal which will see the end of waiting lists, the end of rationing and the end of the disability lottery. Yesterday was a great day.
We are a first world country. We’re a wealthy country and we all know that we should be doing much better than we are. That proper support for people with disability should be core government business. Not an afterthought but core government business. An NDIS really is an idea whose time has come and that has been seized by all political parties.
I mentioned a new covenant, which I think is well demonstrated by the fact that we had both Julia Gillard in Sydney addressing the rally there, and Tony Abbott addressing the rally in Perth. You may have seen in some of the newspaper coverage how Tony Abbott summed up his position on the NDIS. If you haven’t, let me tell you, he said that he is often accused of being Doctor No but that when it comes to the NDIS, he’s Doctor Yes.
The Federal Coalition wants an NDIS. I want an NDIS. It’s a priority for me and it’s a priority for Tony Abbott. Now you may recall earlier in the year that Tony Abbott gave a speech at the National Press Club where he outlined his priorities for the year ahead. An NDIS was one of them. He said that it was an idea whose time had come. He also said something else at the Press Club which was lost a little bit in translation it would be fair to say. He said that an NDIS could only be fully implemented once the budget was in strong surplus. Now that was taken by some to mean that he was saying that an NDIS would not start and there would be no work on it until the budget was in strong surplus.
Let me tell you. That’s not what he said, and that’s not what he meant. He said an NDIS can’t be fully implemented until the budget was in strong surplus. He didn’t say it couldn’t start, he didn’t say it shouldn’t start, and he didn’t say it wouldn’t start before then under a Coalition government. If we take the current government at face-value, their forecasts, then there will be budget surpluses as far as the eye can see. If we don’t take that at face-value, if we do assume that the budget may again be in deficit, we aim as a Coalition to get the budget back into surplus quickly.Last time we were in government we got the budget back into surplus in about a year. So it’s our aim to get the budget back into surplus quickly.
My point is that delivering an NDIS and a budget surplus are not mutually exclusive aims, and they are not the enemy of each other. A budget surplus isn’t an impediment to an NDIS. It is what will actually sustain an NDIS. I just want to make that clear. Tony was not saying that we’re not going to start the NDIS before a budget surplus. In fact so committed is Tony to an NDIS and so committed am I, that in Canberra a couple of weeks ago, we did a joint press conference where we called on the government to have money in this budget for an NDIS. We expect that they will, and we will welcome it and support it. As I stand here, I can’t immediately think of another portfolio area where we have specifically called for there to be an allocation in this budget.
The other point I’d like to make, and which I think people with disabilities and their families should take comfort from, is the approach that I have brought to the disabilities portfolio, and that Tony Abbott has brought as well. As far as possible, I’ve sought to bring a non-partisan approach to the portfolio for the simple reason that people with disabilities and their families and their advocates and their carers have a pretty low threshold for political point-scoring in the area of disability policy.
This is because they just want things fixed. The view that I’ve taken is that the best way to achieve a better deal for people with disabilities is to take a non-partisan approach. It is very important more broadly though, that an NDIS is above partisan politics. In an effort to ensure a non-partisan approach to an NDIS, Tony Abbott and I have proposed a joint committee of the parliament to be co-chaired by the disabilities frontbenchers from both sides of politics. This would provide non-partisan cross-party support and oversight for the implementation of an NDIS.
The implementation of an NDIS will span several parliaments, it will span several elections, and probably some changes of government as well. We do need a mechanism that can ensure the implementation of an NDIS is not thwarted nor side-tracked by changes of government or changes in political fortunes. In our view, an NDIS should be owned by the parliament as a whole. The NDIS should be owned by the nation as a whole.
I must say, I am a little disappointed that the government have not taken up, as yet, that proposal for a joint parliamentary committee of all parties to oversight the NDIS’ implementation. I’m disappointed in that for a number of practical reasons, and I’ll just go through a couple of those with you. The Prime Minister yesterday gave notice that she will make an announcement on budget night in relation to launch sites for an NDIS. And that those launch sites would be in place a year before the Productivity Commission’s suggested timeline. Now the sooner we can do this I think the better, but there’s a heck of a lot of work to do in the next fourteen months to get those launch sites up and running.
To look at the state governments, they say that it’s a good announcement yesterday but that no one has spoken to us about how we’re actually going to do this. So there’s a lot of work to do. It may well be that we can do this a year ahead of the Productivity Commission’s timeline. I hope we can, but the simple truth is, I don’t know. We need to have a parliamentary committee oversighting so that if it is possible to do things quicker and better and faster, then we can all be informed of that, we can all contribute, and we can all help make that happen. It’s a point that Rachel’s made, that it’s better to have the politicians, it’s better to have the members of parliament involved earlier rather than later, to make this happen.
Another reason why I think it’s important to take up this suggestion of a parliamentary committee is that if we want to ensure a non-partisan approach to the introduction of an NDIS, there needs to be a forum, there needs to be a mechanism where questions can be asked, appropriate questions, in a way that isn’t seen to be partisan. We want to put this above partisanship but that’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate questions that I should ask, that there aren’t legitimate questions that Rachel should ask, and that there aren’t legitimate questions for the Parliament to ask. That’s not being partisan. That’s just trying to help improve the outcome, ensure good outcomes and ensure that we get this right. I think the mechanism that we’ve proposed would guarantee that that can be done in a way that isn’t seen to be political point-scoring.
I don’t want to give any government, be it the current government, or if we are fortunate to be in government in the future, the opportunity to try and claim an NDIS or to use it as a wedge between political parties. I think this is just too important for that. This mechanism, I think, would be a guarantee against that happening.
The other reason why I think we need this committee, and I’m talking about this committee at some length because it covers off on many of the points which Andrea has asked us to address, is it would ensure that there is appropriate consultation. There hasn’t been adequate consultation to date with people with disabilities, with organisations who provide services to people with disabilities, or with advocates. We have had, essentially, some bureaucratic processes. The COAG Select Council on Disability Reform, which consists of state treasurers, the commonwealth treasurer, state and federal disabilities ministers. They’ve been doing some good work. They report to COAG. There is an advisory committee. But it hasn’t been entirely clear how people with disability can have input to that process. It hasn’t even been entirely clear for that matter how the states can either. So if we have this sort of oversight mechanism, we will have the capacity to make sure that proper consultations are had. We can take heart that there is the Stakeholder Engagement Strategy. But it’s a bit too late. We do need a mechanism where those people who are elected by Australians can actually say no, we need to consult more here, we need to talk to those people, what do they think. We need to have that sort of mechanism.
If I had my ‘druthers’, I think it probably also would have been good if the Government much earlier in the piece had appointed a CEO for the National Disability Insurance Agency, and also a board, so that the people who are actually going to be running the thing have an involvement in consultations with stakeholders and an involvement in the building of it. I think we need to move away from the bureaucratic processes and start putting in place the people who will be running the system and then engaging the people who the system will support. I do continue to hope that our offer will be taken up by the government for those reasons.
Then there is the National Disability Strategy, which Andrea also wanted us to touch on. It’s a good and a worthy document, as is the National Carers Strategy. As is in another part of my portfolio, the National Volunteers Strategy. As is, the Carer Recognition legislation which the parliament has passed. These are all good and worthy things. But we all need to guard against the tendency of governments, with no particular political persuasion, that once you’ve produced a strategy, that once you’ve passed a piece of recognition legislation, you have a bit of a feeling of satisfaction that you’ve completed that particular task. What matters is the follow through. It’s not entirely clear to me what has been followed through with the National Disability Strategy. It would be good, I think, if the government could give an indication of how they will breathe life into that. What mechanism they will have to give meaning to the National Disability Strategy. It’s a good and worthy document but I’m not sure as yet what difference it is making to people’s lives. Ultimately, that is the only measure that counts with these strategies.
Which leads me on to the area of the Social Inclusion portfolio. I have had a little bit to write and say about that portfolio earlier in the year, partly to ginger the government a little bit, as is our job as an opposition to help governments govern better. Again I have a concern, but not about the concept. We’re here, the title of this conference is ‘Advocating for Inclusion’. But I have a concern that when a government appoints a portfolio of Social Inclusion, appoints a minister of Social Inclusion, it can lead a government to think, well we’ve addressed social inclusion. We must have because we’ve got a minister for it. We must have addressed social inclusion because we’ve got a unit for it in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. I just say, it’s something that we’ve got to keep a watch out for, and government has to keep a watch out for. That strategies, recognition legislation and well-named portfolios don’t lead to a sense of complacency and don’t lead to a sense of achievement. We’ve always got to keep our eyes focussed on what the practical, real life effect is on improving quality of life of the people that these strategies, legislation and portfolios are aimed at. I think we’ve got to see all our ministers as social inclusion ministers. That’s just something that I want to flag and that we do need to be careful on.
The issue on advocacy as such, before I came here, I looked at the pages of the Productivity Commission on advocacy, which are here. There’s only three or four of them. It doesn’t go into much detail, but it says all the things that we’d like it to say, which is that individual advocacy is important, that systemic advocacy is important, that we need to be wary of conflicts of interests. These are all important things.
But again this brings me back to the importance of this parliamentary oversight committee to make sure that advocacy, that advocates are given the proper consideration that they are due, because in the new world of an NDIS, advocacy is going to come into its own in a way it never has before. The need is going to be greater than ever before for individual advocacy, for systemic advocacy. This is a whole new world and we just don’t know how it’s going to operate. We need to make sure that you have appropriate input, that you are appropriately consulted, and that in the very design of an NDIS, that advocates have a say. It’s unlikely I think that advocacy will be funded by an NDIS due to the potential conflicts of interest there, but we do need a clearer idea of how advocacy will work, what it will look like and how people will access it in the new world of an NDIS.
Finally, can I just urge you all to continue to be ceaseless in what you do. I know you don’t need any encouragement in being ceaseless, but the most effective political tool anyone has is persistence. Mostly, governments and parliaments, respond to those who are the most persistent. I know it’s the same in your areas of activity. Those who get the outcomes for those they represent are those who are the most persistent. I encourage you to continue to be ceaseless and to continue to be persistent.
Thanks very much.